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Geography Is Destiny but It Shouldn't Be Sorrow

Geography Is Destiny, but It Shouldn't Be Sorrow!

Türkiye must teach everyone everywhere – whether they go to kindergarten or college or are part of professional networks in office buildings or factories – about “uninterrupted earthquake awareness” and treat earthquakes as a “question of national security.” Unfortunately, our country has periodically suffered from local relationships that undermined the political process with their “influence” and “pressure.”

“Türkiye is a country of earthquakes.” It is deeply saddening to live in a place where everyone knows this cliché but does not care – where we choose to learn the hard way, by losing loved ones to earthquakes. I contribute this piece as a journalist who visited most of the provinces and counties that the “disaster of the century” devastated on February 6, 2023, and as a member of a family that experienced the Marmara and Düzce earthquakes in 1999. In the wake of the most recent catastrophe, I spoke with countless people on the ground and encountered the hardest truth. I insist that Türkiye must teach everyone everywhere – whether they go to kindergarten or college or are part of professional networks in office buildings or factories – about “uninterrupted earthquake awareness” and treat earthquakes as a “question of national security.” Unfortunately, our country has periodically suffered from local relationships that undermined the political process with their “influence” and “pressure.” That is why we hope and expect that our call for “enforcement, oversight, and sustainability” does not fall on deaf ears. Obviously, people like us – who know Turkish society inside out, have lived here for more than a half-century, and are well-educated – need to help develop solutions and shape the future instead of making up excuses. It is that sense of responsibility that drives me to share my rational assessment here and make certain recommendations as a footnote to history.

4:17 a.m., February 6, 2023

The tremors simultaneously felt in 11 provinces (e.g. Adana, Adıyaman, Diyarbakır, Elazığ, Gaziantep, Hatay, Kahramanmaraş, Kilis, Malatya, Osmaniye, and Şanlıurfa) paralyzed the administrative systems of all nearby cities that could have rushed to each other’s aid. Having experienced two earthquakes of unprecedented magnitude, in turn, deepened the initial shock among local public officials. In Ankara, all political and bureaucratic stakeholders in the disaster and emergency management process – starting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – swiftly launched relief efforts. They also called for international assistance. Inclement weather and damage to highways and airstrips delayed the arrival of logistical support by air or land. Power outages and mobile communication networks crashing also slowed coordination on the ground. Moreover, many specialists trained to assist survivors or their family members were trapped under the rubble – which reduced the number of trained staff for the local rescue teams. It is abundantly clear that the state’s skillful response to past natural disasters, which were limited in scope and easier to contain quickly, set a high bar for earthquake response. Citizens, whose homes collapsed, thus expected rescue workers and construction equipment to arrive immediately. It also took a long time for many citizens to realize that the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) served as a coordination center – though not all institutions and persons involved in disaster management directly reported to the agency. Some opposition-controlled municipalities, which exploited the earthquakes for political gain, delivered internet connections to survivors before cranes and construction equipment to disseminate images of pain and outrage. For example, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) leadership makes accusations against the central government; yet, it was unable to mobilize its municipalities to rush to the aid of Hatay, whose municipality it controls, within 10 or 12 hours. Did they get there at all? They did, but the CHP-run local governments of İzmir, Muğla, Antalya, Mersin, and even Istanbul were also unable to immediately prepare their firefighters to serve on the ground. In the end, rescue workers and the National Medical Rescue Team (UMKE) turned out to be the real heroes. The Turkish Armed Forces, the gendarmerie, law enforcement officers, miners, firefighters, and volunteers from abroad – we owe them all a debt of gratitude.

Before, During, and After the Quakes

Let’s analyze the “disaster of the century” in three stages.

 Before the Disaster

Unfortunately, we continue to “pay a heavy price” while trying to come to terms with living on fault lines. We see urban renewal as a means to own more property – as opposed to an opportunity to occupy safer residences. We blame the central government and local officials without changing our behavior and delay all solutions out of everyday considerations. We ignore the fact that some of the buildings, which have been fixed on paper thanks to zoning amnesties, sit on soft ground and lack columns. For some reason, we all do the same thing – regardless of our political views, hometowns, lifestyles, religious identity, and level of education. Even those folks, who like to berate people, think of being treated exceptionally as a skill!

During the Earthquake

We faced the reality of disaster management. In other words, we did our best to dig through the rubble of collapsed buildings. At that moment, our capabilities, institutional experiences, and organizational skills came to the fore. Having witnessed the state’s might in times of crisis, ordinary citizens understandably and rightfully hope to see rescue teams and construction equipment reach all collapsed buildings within a very short amount of time. Yet the earthquake’s magnitude and aftershocks, the devastation of multiple places that would otherwise assist each other, inclement weather, and the disaster’s negative impact on transportation and communication networks tended to slow the response. We performed admirably when it came to saving lives from the rubble, rushing injured people to the hospital, and addressing the urgent needs of people without homes, including shelter. Yet we cannot perform consistently in other areas. Indeed, every family owning an earthquake kit, learning to defend themselves against earthquakes, and taking first aid courses are all unnecessary concerns.

The Aftermath

Our focus has shifted to removing the rubble, assessing the damage, providing temporary shelters, and building new homes. At this stage, it is vitally important to provide long-term psychosocial support to alleviate mental health issues. It is necessary to find those responsible and bring them to justice. It is now inevitable that we put in place a formal structure that goes beyond the AFAD – perhaps a ministry of emergencies (and migration management). We are compelled to ensure that each earthquake-prone province and county is prepared to take care of itself for 24 hours – until the capital rushes to their aid. It is equally important for the Turkish Red Crescent to work flexibly within disaster and emergency management processes so that it can serve as a backup. Moreover, it is necessary to hold earthquake drills more frequently and systematically at schools, hospitals, public buildings, and workplaces. Last but not least, the only solution is to put qualified people in positions of power – as all organizations must and our faith dictates. Finally, our nation must amend the Constitution or adopt a constitution of urban renewal and implement it without exceptions. I would like to take this opportunity to note that I am absolutely in awe of the solidarity of this great nation, of which I am proud to be a member. I urge politicians to act with common sense anew and reject any attempt to “look for the government under the rubble.”

Subtleties of Crisis Management

As a potential road map, I would like to provide a summary of disaster management’s complex processes, which require some level of finesse:
  • Establishing a crisis desk to assess the severity of the disaster,
  • Preparing search and rescue teams and deploying them to the disaster zone,
  • Ensuring coordination with foreign experts with the help of staff members that speak multiple languages and addressing the basic needs of the relevant teams,
  • Supplying construction equipment and generators,
  • Supplying and rapidly distributing container homes, blankets, and heaters to people in need,
  • Providing shelter and care to people with disabilities and the elderly,
  • Protecting children,
  • Deploying medical teams to the disaster zone,
  • Building field hospitals,
  • Sending sufficient ambulances to the affected area,
  • Building an air bridge to evacuate survivors and injured citizens and using maritime channels of transportation,
  • Ensuring that survivors can temporarily live in disaster-resilient public buildings and other public spaces,
  • Storing enough vaccines to prevent epidemics and taking necessary precautions for hygiene,
  • Distributing medicine to people with chronic illnesses,
  • Facilitating uninterrupted communication,
  • Providing meals to citizens and officials working in the disaster zone,
  • Maintaining a steady supply of fuel,
  • Upholding public order and preventing looting and theft,
  • Ensuring the functionality of electricity, natural gas, and water networks,
  • Setting up mobile toilets,
  • Cleaning the environment,
  • Offering psychosocial support to survivors,
  • Protecting children from trauma,
  • Integrating an effective hotline into operations on the ground,
  • Enabling all citizens who wish to leave affected towns to travel and find shelter,
  • Identifying the dead to provide funeral, morgue, and religious services,
  • Coordinating all donations and support including foreign aid,
  • Repairing the roads,
  • Checking and ensuring the functioning of all public buildings, energy facilities, dams, and airports,
  • Combating disinformation,
  • Designating media zones for national and international journalists,
  • Completing the damage assessment,
  • Providing emergency cash assistance,
  • Postponing the payment of taxes, insurance premiums, credit card debt, and water, phone, and electricity bills,
  • Launching judicial investigations to identify those responsible,
  • Preventing the individuals who built and commissioned sub-standard buildings from fleeing,
  • Removing the rubble,
  • Delivering private property to homeowners or relatives,
  • Drawing new city plans and respecting local architectural patterns and communities,
  • Restoring normal educational services,
  • Restoring normalcy and supporting all victims throughout the process.
One Last Point Mehmet Akif Ersoy, Türkiye’s national poet, famously said: “May Allah not make this nation write another independence march!” May Allah never let our nation experience such pain ever again either. May He send us plenty of people and officials that take precautions first and leave the rest to Allah. I pray that Allah will show mercy to the dead, give patience to their relatives, and swiftly heal the wounded.